Objects of art from Africa: restitution in the legislative field

In France, the debate on restitution returns to the front of the stage in the National Assembly. Indeed, this Tuesday, October 6, French deputies vote on the restitution of cultural property concerning two countries, Senegal and Benin. If the bill discussed today at first reading comes to materialize a promise by French President Emmanuel Macron made in November 2017 in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, it only contains two very clear articles. “As from the entry into force of the text, the 26 works from Abomey and the saber with scabbard known as” El Hadj Omar Tall “cease to be part of the French national collections, and this, by derogation from the principle of ‘inalienability’, detail Articles 1 and 2 of the final version of the text. Legislative work around this restitution procedure actually started in July. And because of the legislative agenda shaken up by the coronavirus crisis, this bill is presented in an accelerated procedure, that is to say that it will only go before each chamber once. The goal ? That the law be definitively adopted by the end of the year. France will then have one year to return the said works to Benin, the saber having already been returned to the Senegalese authorities.

Read also France acts on the return of works of art in Senegal and Benin

A stage that ends a very long period

Three years after the Ouagadougou speech, the return of works of art taken during colonization in Africa and exhibited in French museums is encountering many difficulties and remains minimal. The trial of five Pan-African activists who tried to seize a funeral post at Quai Branly, by making a political gesture, was recently held in Paris. Fines have been requested against the defendants, and judgment is expected on October 14.

As a reminder, the transfer to Benin concerns 26 pieces from the “Trésor de Béhanzin” resulting from the looting of the Abomey palace in 1892. They are today at the Quai Branly-Jacques-Chirac museum in Paris. Former Dahomey had launched steps in this direction in 2016. In this wake, thanks to his trip to Senegal on November 17 and 18, 2019, former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced the launch of the process of restitution to the Republic of Senegal with the saber of El Hadj Omar Tall, a great West African military and religious figure of the XIXe century, with its scabbard, and symbolically proceeded to its delivery. These pieces were claimed by his descendants since 1994 and are exhibited in Dakar as part of a long-term loan. All these objects had been integrated according to the law of the time concerning the spoils of war, the colonial plunder coming within this framework. It was from the Hague Convention of 1899 that the practice of spoils of war began to become illegal.

A historical and political gesture

For the French government, this is today a historic gesture, since the text exceptionally derogates from the principle of inalienability of French collections among the richest in the world by giving full ownership back to the two States. “This is not an act of repentance or reparation, nor a condemnation of the French cultural model”, but the beginning of a “new chapter in the cultural link between France and Africa”, pleaded the Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot. As for the rapporteur Yannick Kerlogot (LREM), he evokes a “strong political decision”, which reflects the president’s commitment to rebuild the Franco-African cultural partnership. Proof of the consensus it generates within the political class: the Culture and Foreign Affairs committees have unanimously approved it. “By returning these exceptional objects to Senegal and Benin, we are helping to give African youth access to major elements of their own heritage,” Ms. Bachelot underlined to the deputies of the Committee on Cultural Affairs.

Read also “All the objects acquired during the colonial period were not acquired by force”

A law that does not close the debate

However, does this law really correspond to the promises of the French president? The text only speaks of 26 Beninese objects and one Senegalese. It does not open any door to other refunds to other countries of the continent. However, in his speech in Ouagadougou, the French Head of State affirmed that “African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, Lagos, Cotonou, it will be one of my priorities. I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or final restitution of African heritage in Africa within five years. “

The opponents of the text are already making themselves heard. They accuse him of encouraging an endless relaunch of the demands for restitution which regularly poison international relations, like Greece which calls in vain for the return of the Parthenon friezes exhibited at the British Museum. “How are we going to say to Egypt: no, not you?” How are we going to do with the Napoleonic captures? »Which reign in French museums, reacted to AFP Me Yves-Bernard Debie, lawyer specializing in cultural goods. “The inalienable nature of the collections will die with this law,” he assures us.

Some operators also fear that after these restitutions, the legal art market will become “cautious” in the face of a risk of “legal instability”, according to the impact study given to deputies. These same voices were raised when the report was delivered by academics Bénédicte Savoy, from the College de France, and Felwine Sarr, from the University of Saint-Louis in Senegal, who listed 90,000 African works in French museums. The report proposed a change in the heritage code to facilitate their return when African states so request.

Fear of politicization

Their work has been contested by other specialists and museums such as the Quai Branly, which has the largest collection of early arts. They worried about a politicization of the debate and arguments that all works on deposit with them since colonization have been dishonestly acquired or looted, and must be returned. They favor the “circulation” of works between France and Africa, rather than restitutions, except when, as is the case for the statues of the royal palace of Abomey, the looting by French soldiers has been flagrant. “It’s a cry of hatred against the very concept of a museum,” said Stéphane Martin, who led the creation of the Quai Branly museum before taking the lead, until the end of 2019. For his successor, Emmanuel Khasarherou, “a movement was given” by the Sarr-Savoy report, which “encouraged us to a kind of examination of conscience”.

The difficulty is to retrace the route of the works. Some have passed through several hands: administrators, doctors, soldiers or their descendants have donated them to museums. Others were offered to religious, acquired by collectors of African art at the beginning of the 20th century.e century, or brought back during scientific expeditions. Three issues make the case complex: the border changes after the independence of the colonies which make it difficult to attribute a work to a country, the conditions for keeping the works once returned, and the case of objects from art that “disappear” once they have been returned to their country of origin.

Read also Marie-Cécile Zinsou: “Questioning the legitimacy of France to keep these objects”

An open door?

On the other hand, many deplore the too limited nature of these drop-off refunds. This is the case of the president of Benin Patrice Talon, who is said in the weekly Young Africa “Not satisfied” with the bill, even if it recognizes “small steps” on the part of Paris. “Passing a specific law to return twenty-six works is a strict minimum. What we want is a general law “making it possible to negotiate” a global restitution on the basis of a precise inventory “, he explains. Indeed, on the Beninese side, we wonder a lot about the relevance of the list of 26 objects available on the website of the Quai Branly-Jacques-Chirac museum. Was it the State of Benin that provided a list? Or the French state which has made a choice? On what criteria…? There is no known and public answer to these questions.

In the wake of the restitutions in Benin and Senegal, the deputy of the French abroad M’jid El Guerrab has just proposed the restitution of the burnous of Emir Abdelkader, “hero of the resistance to the colonization of Algeria” in the XIXe century, preserved in Paris. Minister Roselyne Bachelot herself recognized that these restitutions “are at the heart of lively debates, that they feed many ethical, philosophical and political questions”. On September 30, during her speech in committee, Marion Lenne, rapporteur for the Committee on Foreign Affairs, announced that five other African countries had come forward for similar renditions.

Paris has already returned, under various legal terms, works of art in Laos, a statue stolen from Egypt in 1981, 21 Maori heads from New Zealand or even 32 gold plates to China, listed the minister. These restitutions are part of an “international movement which is becoming more and more important”, and a “reflection on the role of museums in the world”, she also argued. While departing from the inalienable nature of specific works, the law does not call into question this principle “which has cemented French law” since XVI.e century, argues for his part the rapporteur of the project.

Read also France acts on the return of works of art in Senegal and Benin

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